posted 20 Jul 2004 in Volume 7 Issue 10
Concerns of a CKO
A chief knowledge officer’s role involves implementing knowledge-sharing initiatives across complex organisational environments. Antonella Padova draws on her substantial experience to explain the perils and pitfalls, and to offer some practical advice on overcoming KM hurdles.
In a professional environment where knowledge management seems to be the order of the day, you would think that a chief knowledge officer (CKO) would be able to talk about their job without having to explain what they actually do. However, as one of the few Italian chief knowledge officers, I constantly have to explain my role – sometimes even to those attending technical seminars on such areas as document-management systems and change management.
Perhaps this is because knowledge management is such a broad term and the KM umbrella seems to cover so many areas. Despite this, CKOs are everywhere, even if this is not their official title. A similar role is often assigned to professionals in other areas, such as marketing and communications, human resources and IT.
Unfortunately, these employees have their core responsibilities and knowledge management is simply not their priority. KM sponsorship and awareness therefore takes a back seat when delegated to employees who do not have the expertise and leadership to support a serious KM programme. The outcome of this is that knowledge-management strategies often fail.
In Italy in particular, the value of having a dedicated CKO is rarely recognised in a business environment. I still have difficulties being accepted as a true professional, which can be challenging and frustrating.
On the other hand, it is becoming fashionable for university students to relate their theses to KM. In fact, in the past seven years, I have welcomed dozens of students into my team. They have been able (and willing) to dedicate time and energy to learning about knowledge-management issues, sharing the goals of CKOs by facing obstacles and contributing to successful projects. However, these positive experiences rarely lead to graduates joining a KM team or function for the simple reason that these professional opportunities are so rare. Thereis also little understating of the role, in internal HR departments of many companies or even in recruitment companies. This ignorance is particularly disappointing when you consider that the Italian economic environment could reap so much benefit from KM-based principles and working practices.
Challenges and opportunities
The situation is further complicated by difficult market conditions, which mean that investment in KM-related areas is often considered to be unjustified. When implementing knowledge-management, ROI is difficult to measure and so companies are reluctant to spend. In addition, within the Italian market, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) dominate and many of these companies do not have the culture or staff resource to justify such an investment.
It is crucial that there is a shift in the way Italian organisations do business. Italy needs to recognise that a knowledge-sharing approach is a winning one. SMEs are now losing competitiveness because they are unwilling to adapt to the knowledge-sharing model. Knowledge management is a powerful business tool, as only a truly knowledge-based company can achieve market differentiation through product innovation and productivity improvements.
Furthermore, this progress (complete with demonstrable ROI) could be achieved in the public sector, where the Minister for Innovations and Technologies, Lucio Stanca, is investing with vigour. Other beneficiaries could be SMEs, which have the potential to create relationships leading to idea cross-fertilisation and innovation.
It is no secret that countries where a KM approach is widely adopted and recognised, such as the UK, US and North European countries, are seen as particularly powerful in business terms. Meanwhile, the southern part of the world (especially countries with Latin origins) has never really accepted the fact that knowledge should not be defined as the power of one, but as the success of many.
Issues and tips: how to promote a knowledge-sharing culture
If you are an adept communicator you can be reassured that knowledge sharing begins with socialising and coaching. It is important to take advantage of this. Many CKOs are spending more time giving presentations at external events and visiting and training university students on KM culture, processes and tools. I have recently delivered several presentations and masterclasses in Italy, as well as participating in external roundtables and internal surveys with Capgemini. I have found that visiting students talk freely about their experiences, generating much-needed awareness. All these activities have been invaluable for the KM team, allowing them to exchange ideas, approaches and points of view.
Within your organisation it is imperative to formalise a clear communication plan that includes a definition of themes; the tools you are planning to use, such as regular newsletters and event-driven updates on new systems; and how the information gained will be shared most efficiently.
In my experience, the option to win always appeals. It is not important what they are asked to do, or what the prize is. What matters is the chance of receiving a prize at the end of the game. One of the first strategies I adopted when attempting to champion knowledge sharing was to recognise every contribution by allocating points for documents submitted to the system. These points were collected to form a kind of online loyalty card. Employees could amass points and apply for ‘knowledge rewards’, which included prizes and financial bonuses. One could argue that this method was flawed, as employees were recognised for things that they should have been doing anyway. However, this approach encouraged a sharing culture within the company, which eventually became self-sustaining.
Unfortunately, there is always the risk that such a huge knowledge-sharing effort could be rendered void by colleagues who do not share a CKO’s aims. It is important that senior staff communicate and have common goals when it comes to KM. If the CEO sponsors KM submissions but individual team leaders are not enforcing these, perhaps because they feel it will detract from keeping clients happy, the exercise is rendered invalid. The KM tools should be user-friendly and should not change too often. If a company constantly switches search engines and software, people will not have the time or energy to learn how to use the new system.
Appraise and perform
Another approach to implementing knowledge-management initiatives is to introduce a performance appraisal. I have found that this approach often generates even more submissions than a rewards system. People are wary of bad performance evaluations, especially in environments where appraisals have a direct impact on career advancements and salary increases.
Testimonials and sponsors
Another way to gain the attention of personnel is to point out how well known and recognised figures are promoting KM. For example, the Italian Republic President, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, says that the Italians must again find a sense of community and ownership. Lucio Stanca, the Minister for Innovations and Technologies, has been quoted as saying that, “The competitive environment among economic systems, once concentrated on products and prices, today is more and more focused on knowledge [and] the ability of an economic system to leverage it for the good and the wealth of the whole Italian society.” I often refer to this type of material, which can summarise the vision or the strategy presented during a meeting in a few strong sentences.
Ethics and a sense of ownership
A huge issue within many companies stems from staff being reluctant to share their knowledge in the working environment because they do not trust their colleagues. Attitudes need to change and workers need to think of the good of the whole company.
Employees also need to feel a deep sense of loyalty to the company if they are to begin sharing; they need to feel that they will spend the next ten years of their life in the company. Unfortunately, this feeling is not particularly common. Top management seems to change relatively frequently, as people move from one company to another. Crucially, senior managers are the staff that most need to be involved in knowledge-sharing processes, as they are the ones who can encourage others to become involved in KM initiatives. The ideal situation is one in which top management stays the same for several years, encouraging trust and a sense of continuity. At the same time, it is important to advocate a knowledge-sharing approach from the beginning, as soon as a new employee is hired.
A mission statement
For the dedicated chief knowledge officer, job satisfaction is worth more than climbing the career ladder (do not expect to sit on the management board very often). You will need patience, as it takes time, trust and energy to convince your potential knowledge workers that you are not there to steal their knowledge but to enrich the whole company’s intellectual capital.
One of the most successful avenues is to promote learning by example. If you can convince a handful of top managers that a CKO works for the good of the company by giving specific examples of how business improves when knowledge is freely available, then you are halfway there.
An optimistic outlook
The CKO’s job is an ancient one. Since the beginning of time human beings have tried to manage and govern what they know. A good analogy is that of the farmer: there are days when you sow and there are days when you reap, and the quantity and quality of your harvest depends on a variety of conditions (or in the case of the CKO, on the organisational changes at top management level). The CKO is charged with controlling and organising the knowledge that is already present within a company to enable it to be shared.
For those of you who are trying to deal with KM issues, do not give up – you can make it happen. Never forget that KM is fundamentally a people issue, and that both personal and professional issues make up a knowledge-sharing culture.
Antonella Padova, chief knowledge officer, Capgemini